The Exploitation of Human Nature, and it's Impact on the Innovation and Evolution of Video Games

A.K.A, Stat Based Progression

A.K.A, RPG 'like' Mechanics

A.K.A, Numbers

It's not just about the numbers, it's also about things like skill progression, customization, collections and the like. It's essentially padding.

So what's the problem, a lot of people like these numbers?

Let me tell you about Disgaea, if you know the franchise already, you'll already be aware of how it is the epitome of the numbers games. Essentially, you play through a game that is structured on gaming faux-experience which then goes on to develop your characters, so that you can play further into the game and develop your characters. It's a demonic (pun intended) cycle that just so happens to be one of my favourite franchises. So right of the bat, I'm going to make sure you know that I could be considered a hypocrite.

So what does this have to do with anything? How is this the exploitation of human nature?

There are certain elements that bring us pleasure, trigger curiosity, or regarding this topic, satisfy us.

Games are generally layered in satisfaction. Elements of satisfactions. But often, we talk about how we were able to beat that big boss, win that bout without a scratch or pull out all the stops to clock an amazing time of that track that you like. These are elements that grant satisfactions, but not on the basic scale, not on the scale that can be exploited. For any of these, a certain level of investment is needed from the player. That means, that more often that not, you have already been a victim to your senses and how you are wired for reward.

The real satisfaction that gets you, is a pleasant effect, like the sound of collecting a coin in Mario. Or something a little meatier, seeing that bar fill after you have completed a battle. The experience starts to build up, it plays a teasing little ring as it moves closer to the goal. You keep filling it because you want the reward, you want to see the progression. Part of you wants to see what your hard work has gotten you.This isn't something that is satisfying at a level of challenge, or of intelligence, it's a primitive excitement, but possibly the most engaging mechanic in games.

This mechanic is the one that drives many of the money machines. It's what the Social Game Bubble was built around. It's something that is found in many mobile games, it's looking to feed the player a slight hint of basic satisfaction in the effort to make them crave more.

The problem - if it can be considered one - is that this is not limited to Social or Mobile. Indeed, it has been an integral mechanic in games for a very long time. And, it's not going away. Quite the opposite in fact, you will find that a big chunk of the latest releases will have a bullet point on the back of the box "- RPG Mechanics"; numbers.

Look at some of the biggest games of the last year or so, Call of Duty (MP Experience), Skyrim, Mass Effect, Borderlands. They have the numbers game. In the latter 3, you could say that it is expected of the genre to and extent, but of the first example, that is pure example of exploitation of this system. It's an amazing success story of combining great gameplay, with a hook to keep you seated.

This desire for numbers has pushed beyond the games and into the platforms that we play. Achievements and Trophies are as popular now as they have ever been. Game Center on iOS is a platform that gets plenty of love from those playing the games. People like progression, they like the numbers.

Perhaps part of this comes from a desire to not see time being wasted. We can play a game that has a large level of number tracking and variables, and see that our time isn't being wasted. It allows us to feel that the time we spent was spent on something that is almost tangible in those progressing numbers that we see on screen. Time was not wasted, you have been rewarded. Take a look at your good work.

So, why would this be damaging for games?

The fact is, is that it is becoming the fallback feature. Games are tagging their games with it and passing it off as content when it is anything but. There is no content in those higher numbers, just time. And that time is simply spent to get higher numbers for the purpose of having high numbers. There is nothing greater beyond that, it doesn't present a new challenge or open to new interactions, your numbers just go up.

These numbers don't are also the most artificial of this artificial environment. They are simply a engineered and designed exploitation of a system. You can do this stuff yourself if you have ever messed with a text file in a Total War game or something similar. It's a fraction of data, nearly none existent, but it has shaped your pursuit through a mass of far more meaningful content. You choose not to explore the vistas or search for greater secrets, but instead to stand and destroy the same object time and time again for the sack of inflating the what are nothing more than numbers in a spreadsheet.

We spend so much time doing this, games are released with this being the core experience, and more and more games are latching onto it. Why would a develop try something new, when they can simply present you with a small set of timed rewards. Like pet treats, you do your trick and get your reward, a measly little chew that for the second you taste it, is all worthwhile, but afterward, you just want another.

Developers do not need to sink time into creating vast and varied environments, new innovative mechanics or look into alternate ways to play when you are going to be most excited about "RPG Mechanics". Sure there's a real nice story, but you spent most of your time killing blobs, destroying any possible well paced narrative that could have been there. Those numbers are removing you from your game world, and even when you are immersed, you have a digit or few ready to let you know that you are simply driving data, not a hero, not a warrior.

But can we fight against this, can we push for change. Can we go cold turkey and only play games that are just play?

We have a weakness for this reward. We can't help it, we enjoy it. But we also need to realise that this shortcut and exploit is becoming a trend that can damage the creativity, and possibly the value that we give it. We need to have a desire to try new things, involve ourselves into deeper stories and play for exploration.

Numbers are satisfying, simple rewards please us, but we still must ask for more. We need more, we are far more evolved than this mechanic would have us believe. We can't help what we are wired to enjoy, but we can still search for much more to appreciate. As many simple things we enjoy, it is nothing compared to the curiosity that we posses.

Log In Sign Up

Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new Polygon username and password

As part of the new Polygon launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to Polygon going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new Polygon username and password

As part of the new Polygon launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to Polygon going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.



Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.